Image: Ember Skies: Fire's Brushstrokes from Duncan Rawlinson's Flickr Photostream

In the film ‘Don’t Look Up’ (2021), a planet-killing comet is on a direct collision course with Earth. Distraught scientists are depicted as struggling unsuccessfully to get politicians, the media, and the public to believe them and act to avert disaster. The director of the film, Adam McKay, has made it clear that the film’s primary aim is for it to be a metaphor for the climate crisis. As he said after the film’s release, “I’m under no illusions that one film will be the cure to the climate crisis… But if it inspires conversation, critical thinking, and makes people less tolerant of inaction from their leaders, then I’d say we accomplished our goal”. It should be evident that there is no more significant threat to our health than the possibility that we may be wiped out as a species. Even a cursory examination of the evidence presents a dismal picture, and one question on the minds of many is why more decisive action is not being taken to tackle the climate emergency. Why are politicians and sections of the media acting like the fictional characters in ‘Don’t Look Up’ and not making the climate crisis their top priority?

Let us begin by reviewing recent evidence and warnings of the climate crisis before exploring why individuals, organisations, or politicians promote climate crisis denial. In 2023, the world experienced extreme heat, wildfires, storms, and flooding. The 2023 State of the Climate report started with the following bleak statement:

Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up.

This year has been record-breaking, and not in a good way. The year has already witnessed 38 days with temperatures over 1.5°C hotter than average, making it the year with the highest number of such days on record. Sea surface temperatures reached record highs for four consecutive months in 2023, with levels nearly 1℃ higher than usual for that time of year. Oceans can absorb heat and carbon dioxide to mitigate the impact of climate change. However, there are concerns that they may be reaching their capacity to do so. The West Antarctic ice sheet has been predicted to collapse due to warming seas, even if the 1.5°C climate goal is achieved, leading to a potential sea level rise of several meters.

All this has led to concerns amongst some scientists that we may already be passing climate tipping points ‘beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. These changes may lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity.

Of course, climate change will impact human health directly and indirectly. Extreme weather events and temperature-related deaths directly impact human health. However, indirect impacts may ultimately have a greater impact. These include worsening air quality, vector-borne diseases, water-related illnesses, and significant disruption of food systems. It is important to note that these impacts are not distributed equally among populations. Vulnerable groups, such as older people, children, and those with pre-existing health conditions, are at a higher risk of suffering from the adverse effects of climate change. In addition, those living in poorer regions are likely to be disproportionately affected while having fewer resources to mitigate impacts.

So, what are some reasons why the rejection or downplaying of the scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is warming has enjoyed some success? One of the most obvious is that it is in the economic interests of fossil fuel industries, such as coal, oil and gas, to maintain their current business models. Acknowledging the reality of climate change could lead to stricter regulations, decreased demand for their products, and the need to invest in alternative energy sources. Moreover, some of the significant players in these industries had conducted their own research as early as the 1970s into climate change:

In 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon oil company has known since the late 1970s that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Additional documents then emerged showing that the US oil and gas industry’s largest trade association had likewise known since at least the 1950s, as had the coal industry since at least the 1960s, and electric utilities, Total oil company, and GM and Ford motor companies since at least the 1970s.

Despite their own scientific evidence showing otherwise, certain members of the fossil fuel industry continued to mislead the public by claiming that the models used to project warming are too uncertain to establish a link between fossil fuel use and climate change.

Climate change denial can align with certain political ideologies, broadly characterised as neo-liberal, sceptical of government intervention, regulations, and international cooperation. Some individuals and political groupings can reject climate science because they view proposed solutions as intrusive or costly to businesses and personal freedoms. If not outrightly rejecting the findings of climate science, many then argue that any mitigations will lead to more significant economic harm and impact people’s lifestyles and freedoms.

Certain think tanks and lobbying organisations can promote climate denial through various mechanisms. However, it is important to note that not all think tanks engage in or support such activities. Some think tanks are dedicated to objective research and analysis, while ideological or financial motivations might influence others.

For example, The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is a UK-based think tank accused of undermining climate science. According to an article in The Guardian from 2019, the IEA has published at least four books, multiple articles, and papers over two decades suggesting that human-made climate change may be uncertain or exaggerated. The IEA has issued publications arguing that climate change is either not significantly driven by human activity or will be positive. Despite a longstanding international consensus among climatologists that human activity accelerates climate change, the IEA’s publications throughout the 1990s and 2000s heavily suggested that climate science was unreliable or exaggerated. Recently, the group has focused more on free-market solutions to reducing carbon emissions. The IEA said it did not take a corporate position on any policy matter and that most publications identified by The Guardian predated most of its current staff.

Organisations, political groupings, and think tanks can exploit scientific uncertainties to create doubt about climate accuracy. Climate science is stochastic, involving randomness and probability. It uses techniques from probability theory, statistics, and computer simulations to analyse complex and unpredictable systems. However, stated uncertainties can be taken out of context to seed doubt about the climate crisis, ignoring the scientific consensus about the climate crisis.

Exploiting the media is a strategy used by think tanks and political groupings to promote their climate denial agendas. This tactic involves manipulating media narratives to advance a particular viewpoint or agenda. Entities that promote climate denial might strategically interact with media outlets to ensure their viewpoints receive disproportionate coverage. They might frame their messages to align with media narratives or provide controversial or sensationalised statements to attract attention. One way this may occur is by treating climate change as a political rather than scientific debate. A false sense of balance is created in media coverage of climate change by presenting climate denial as if it is on equal footing with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Thus, a climate scientist is often pitted against a politician in media debates to give a false sense of balance. This misrepresentation can make it appear that there is more disagreement within the scientific community than there is. It would be challenging to find a reputable scientist to present an opposing view about climate warming because there are hardly any with these views.

The upcoming King’s Speech by Rishi Sunak’s government plans to support North Sea oil and gas exploration and car-friendly policies to improve the Tory party’s fortunes while ignoring the climate crisis. This shows that it’s not just about battling rising temperatures; it’s also about misinformation, vested interests, and complacency. The stark contrast between the reality portrayed in ‘Don’t Look Up’ and our present-day struggle with the climate emergency highlights the urgent need for collective action. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus warning of dire consequences, powerful entities’ deliberate spread of misinformation has hindered action. It’s not just the responsibility of politicians or the media, but all of us to demand and bring about change, recognising that the stakes have never been higher. As individuals, communities, and nations, we must rise above denial and usher in a new era where the well-being of our planet is made a priority.